Review by Amy Miller
Judith Montgomery’s latest full-length poetry collection is about life. Literally, life. From the cosmos of pre-birth, through the mysteries of child-rearing, to the inevitable letting-go as children venture into the world alone, Montgomery works the lens of her magnifier to focus in on moments that are startling when seen in such clear detail. This is an electron microscope of a book.
From the first poem, “What Were You, Before,” the book asks, What is body? What is essence? And how to they determine our fate? Next comes a series of poems about infertility, a long battle replete with technology, hope, plans, and near misses—but also with an omnipresent sense of “othering,” as if infertility sets this woman outside of the rest of our culture, in a place that’s dark in every sense of the word. Then, when conception finally happens, light literally returns to these poems, the speaker now allowed back into the world. Montgomery is making some subtle, dystopian comments about how women are viewed through the lens of their bodies, and worse, only as bodies that continue the species. And yet—for these poems have their paradoxes, as does life—there is an unwavering tenderness toward babies, whether real, imagined, or lost, as in “Baby Blue”:
Check for blood they said. Call
us if. Call us when. But no spotted
cotton. O sweetrunt Katy Kate
don’t make me choose—
I have to lose you, loose
you have to
The book’s second section, “Word,” ranges through time and geography, tracing families: a mother fading into dementia, an aunt lost to a fever, a parent lamenting her murdered son. Many of the poems ekphrastically describe paintings and photographs, focusing Montgomery’s sharp lens again on the body: scars from a mastectomy, a mother bathing her disabled daughter, or the constraints and restrictive clothing dictating the guise of female acquiescence in “Her Silence Is”:
rib removed, the more closely
to corset her waist. Breath.
Is handcuff. Straitjacket. Gag.
The last section, “Witness,” explores the world’s particular dangers for children—illness, accidents, warfare—in a litany of a mother’s worst fears. The poem “Bearing/Bearing Down” signals that even at a baby’s birth, safety is already compromised:
sent out into the fallen unprotected world…
by cord and cuttery, first of many leave-takings
dimly rising on the horizon—
Two poems that form the crescendo of the last section, “A Blessing” and “Five Ways to Wear the Balaclava,” show the extremes of that inevitable leave-taking: In one, parents make a desperate decision about their teenage son, whose life is threatened by his own mysterious mind; in the other, a mother knits a scarf for her son who is leaving to invade another nation, to go to war with other parents’ children.
How, indeed, do we send our children out into that world? Why do we bring them into it, knowing what we know? Montgomery is smart enough not to answer these questions. But in these graceful, searing poems, we sense that virtually every parent has faced these fears and chosen to bring up children anyway. In that regard, Montgomery seems to be saying, parents are never alone; they have all of history keeping them company.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 21, Issue 2.
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